JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in Sabacché and issued from a
ciber in nearby Mérida, Yucatán, MÉXICO

September 8, 2008

NORTHERN PARULAS ARRIVE FOR THE WINTER
A hint of a cool front moved through late this week so on Saturday afternoon temperatures didn't exceed 94° F, (34.4° C), which felt good. Saturday morning I heard a familiar TCHIK, TCHIK from a spreading acacia, saw a familiar kind of nervous, flitting bird-movement not observed since I've been here, and I knew instantly that the first migrating warblers had arrived with that cool front.

It was a female Parula Warbler, her olive back-patch spread like a neat cape across her blue-gray upperparts, white wingbars flashing, yellow throat and chest blending into white below, a quintessential Parula, and I was so glad to see her. During my hermit days in Mississippi, Northern Parulas were among the most common birds in the Spanish-Moss-hung Pecan and Loblolly-Pine trees around my trailer.

Up there, Northern Parulas were among the first migrant warblers to arrive in spring, along with the Black-and-whites. In my March 17th, 2002 Newsletter, I speak of them arriving around my camp in "huge numbers, singing their heads off."

So, Northern Parulas appear to be early birds, both coming and going. Here in this heavy heat and sweaty scrub, a warbler's nervous energy adds a whole new element, one of airiness and lightheartedness. Maybe lightheartedness because down here they don't have to reckon with courtship, nesting, territorial defense and such. Before them now spreads a whole season of simply eating and staying alive -- until next February or so when hormones will inject frenzy and obsession back into their lives, discomfiting them to the point that in early March they'll abandon their tropical paradise, and head back to Mississippi and beyond.

*****

LESSER NIGHTHAWK AT DAWN
Each morning as dawn's first glow suffuses into the starry, Orion-dominated eastern sky I'm out jogging on the asphalt road to Tekit. Usually a Pauraque calls from out in the scrub, a hoarse p'weeEER, p'weeEER... Pauraques are like eastern North America's Whip-poor- wills, but much larger. Here we also have Yucatan Poorwills and Yucatan Nightjars -- both endemic and both Whip-poor-will look-alikes -- but I haven't heard them yet.

Also nearly every morning as I'm jogging back into town half an hour later, when the sky is bright but the sun still isn't up, I meet a Lesser Nighthawk. Nighthawks belong to the same nocturnal bird family as the poor-wills, the Goatsucker Family, or Caprimulgidae. Nighthawks are different from Whip-poor-will-like birds in that their wings are relatively long and pointed, while Whip-poor-will wings are rounded. Nighthawks soar and swoop, while poor-wills usually are glanced erupting from the forest floor, then quickly diving back into shelter, where they're wonderfully camouflaged against the brown, leafy forest floor.

My Lesser Nighthawk always greets me in the same spot, just beyond the eastern side of town. Silently he zigzags through the morning air, swooping and diving for insects, sometimes soaring down the road right at me before lifting over my head. I don't know whether he's playing with me or I just happen to be in his flight path.

Lesser Nighthawks are notably smaller than the Common Nighthawks I'm used to in North America, and which may be passing through here soon on thier way to overwintering grounds in South America. The Lesser Nighthawk's smaller size is apparent because its zigzagging is much nimbler than a larger bird could manage.

Jogging back into town I'm tired and sweat stings my eyes. My running shoes beat an ever more plodding cadence on the asphalt, and I just can't take my eyes off the nighthawk. I do so admire his agility and alertness to insects I can't even see, and the way he always shows up at the same spot at the same time each morning, like me.

*****

WHITE-BROWED [CAROLINA] WREN
That's how -- with brackets around "Carolina" -- Howell in A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America lists a common wren out in the scrub who looks a lot like, and calls, just like eastern North America's abundant Carolina Wren. Down here people wanting to add new species to their life lists identify it as the White-browed Wren, Thryothorus albinucha, but Howell's first scientific name for it is Thryothorus ludovicianus, which is the Carolina Wren's name.

Birds in our Yucatan population, well disjunct from North America's Carolina Wrens, have underparts much paler than typical Carolinas. But is that enough to declare ours as a separate species -- to add to your life list if you've already listed Carolina Wrens?

Howell doesn't give much guidance, and I don't worry about the matter either. I can tell you, however, that our Yucatan birds tend to be more woodsy and shy than North America's Carolina Wrens, not moving into the rafters of peoples' huts and not building in shrubs outside peoples' front doors, which is exactly what typical Carolinas would do if they were here.

If I were still compiling a life list and wanted to know the most current opinion on the matter I'd go to the American Ornithological Union's Checklist of North American Birds at http://www.aou.org/checklist/.

*****

ARBOREAL TERMITE NESTS
Out in the scrub you see brown, basketball-size termite nests on tree branches, like the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080908tt.jpg.

Termites in such nests find most of the damp wood they consume on the forest floor. Since termites are plump, slow-moving insects bearing no stingers or particularly powerful pincers, the question arises as to how they commute between their arboreal home and the forest floor without getting picked off by predators. The answer is that they build covered pathways between their nests and the forest floor, such as those shown snaking down a tree's trunk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080908tu.jpg.

These covered highways tend to be placed on a branch's lower and/or shaded side. Such placement would keep tropical sunlight from heating things up too much inside the tunnel, plus the tunnels would be more protected from rain.

A close-up of a tunnel, showing how it appears to be made of glued-together sawdust particles, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080908tv.jpg.

If you'd like to see inside an arboreal termite nest, meet various members of a termite caste system, and read about defensive and aggressive behaviors, go to http://www.kbinirsnb.be/cb/ants/information/termites_arboreal.HTM.

*****

TERMITE NEST AND AZTEC PARAKEETS
Very often when I pass the nest shown above two Aztec [Olive-throated] Parakeets are hanging around the nest. Their presence there got me to wondering.

Parakeets are very watchful and nervous here, probably because every boy carries a slingshot, and I've known men to shoot parakeets, hoping to only wound them so they can be nursed back to health and sold. Therefore, I can't get close enough to see exactly what the parakeets are doing. However, I do clearly see them picking at the covered tunnels, and clambering over the nest itself, their heads down and their tails high as if they were chewing at the nest. They do this for extended periods of time. When they fly off the nest onto a limb they wipe their beaks as if they'd been feeding.

When I approach and the birds fly off I can see that certain tunnel sections have been ripped away, and that the nest itself has been opened in many places exposing chambers within. I can't say, however, whether the parakeets have done this. I'm not even certain whether the nest is an abandoned one or is still active.

I am sure, however that during this last week I passed the nest every morning as I went out mapping trails, and every morning the parakeets were there. I spoke with some of the older Maya in the village and they confirmed my suspicion: Those parakeets live in the termite nests, they say.

There's no reason why this shouldn't be true. Howell reports Aztec [Olive-throated] Parakeets as nesting in termitaries, and termitary is the fancy name for termite nest.

*****

LEBBECK-TREE FLOWERING
The most graceful, prettiest-flowering street tree in Sabacché right now is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080908al.jpg.

This same species is much planted in Mérida and other Yucatec towns. Northern visitors mostly notice it during the winter/dry season when the trees are loaded with foot-long fruiting pods that dry to a brown, shiny state, and when the wind blows the seeds inside rattle. But, now, it's the fragrant, greenish-yellow, egg-size, powder-puff flower clusters that catch your attention. If you've ever known a woman who'd powder-puff herself with scented talc, you might think of her when you walk by this tree, its honeyed scent pooling in its shadows.

It's the Lebbeck-Tree, ALBIZIA LEBBECK, a native to tropical Asia and northern Australia. The species is planted widely throughout the world's tropics and can grow to 50 feet high (15 m). "Lebbeck" is its Arabic name. I wish I knew how this Asian tree with an Arabic name came to be so common in the Yucatán that even in a little Maya village like Sabacché it occupies an honored spot, shading a good part of the town park. Its shadows provide one of the main firewater-sipping spots for the town's men.

You might recognize the genus name, Albizia, as being the same as that to which North America's much-planted and often invasive Silk-Tree or "Mimosa" belongs to -- that tree being Albizia julibrissin. Silk-Trees produce fuzzy flower clusters like those in the picture, but they're pink. Both species bear twice- pinnately compound leaves, but the Lebbeck-Tree's pinnae are larger and less numerous than the Silk-Tree's, so the feathery effect isn't as conspicuous.

In the flower clusters the slender, fuzzy items are the male parts, the stamens, each one topped by a tiny anther that opens to release pollen. In the picture the stamens in some flower clusters are drooping and turning brown after their blossoms have been pollinated, and the stamens are no longer needed.

How is an Albizia different from an Acacia, which also produces powder-puff-like flower clusters, more than ten male stamens per individual flower, and feathery leaves? In Albizia flowers, the stamens' filament bases are united to one another, while in Acacias, they aren't. Moreover, both Albizia and Acacia differ from the genus Mimosa in that Mimosa blossoms bear ten or fewer stamens. In this area where so many Albizia, Acacia, Mimosa and species of other look-alike genera occur, you just have to memorize these differences, and hope the tree you're wondering about bears flowers!

Whatever the details of its anatomy and taxonomy, the Lebbeck-Tree is one of those beings with such innate dignity and graciousness that you just feel good in its presence.

*****

DON VICENTE'S LLANTÉM
Don Vicente thinks it's hilarious that I'm interested in medicinal plants. Each time we meet he puts down what he's doing, looks around for something medicinal, and tells me about. This week I met him in front of his house as he came in from a morning of firewood gathering, his sweaty, muscular shoulders still covered with chaff and bits of wood from the scrub. He motioned for me to follow him behind his house, to a perpetually shaded, moist, narrow little dead-end alley where he plucked the sprig he's showing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080908pg.jpg.

"Llantém (yahn-TEM)," he named the plant. "If you have a child with an upset stomach you boil this plant's leaves to make a tea and the tea will cure it."

Of course any northerner will recognize the plant as Common Plantain, PLANTAGO MAJOR, a common lawn and roadside weed throughout much of North America and Europe. In fact, the plant is regarded as native to Europe. I thought it would be too hot and dry here for Common Plantain, but Don Vicente's perpetually shaded, sheltered little alley that receives drainage water from the house obviously provides a habitat that for the plantain is close enough to chilly Europe.

So, Common Plantain appears to be yet another Old World plant that somehow has made its way into the traditional Maya pharmacopia. Even Martinez's Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico recognizes it as a traditional remedy, further recommending it for burns, bruises and mouth ulcers. Also, plantain tea mixed with rosewater is good for washing enflamed eyes.

But, is Common Plantain really a European invasive in the Americas? Weakley in the Flora of the Carolinas says that the species is possibly also native in northeastern North America, plus he mentions a population in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay area that "may represent a native, estuarine genotype." Could Common Plantain have already been here when the Europeans arrived? Could that explain why the plant is so well known to the Maya?

In much of Mexico Don Vicente's Llantém is known as Llantén. Yucatec Maya speakers habitually change n sounds at the end of words to m sounds. If a Maya returns from working in Houston, he's been to "OOST- um." In most of Mexico the plant's prevailing common name is Lantén, which is awfully close to Lanten, or Lantana. Well, these common names will drive you crazy. Thank goodness for the Latin Plantago major, which is a good ol' Linnaeus name.

*****

DOÑA MARTA'S BACKYARD
Back in 28 de Junio, Chiapas I showed you the sweeping, arid, somewhat austere view I enjoyed each morning as I campfired my morning stew. Here I have the same sooty kettle dangling from a rope held up by a tripod, but my view is completely different, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080908vw.jpg.

I've annotated that picture to highlight something special about the scene. That is, it really is an "edible backyard."

The Guaya at the upper left is TALISIA OLIVAEFORMIS of the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae. Around June it produces a small, yellowish, drupe-like fruit with orangish, acidy, pleasant-tasting flesh. Despite each fruit having much more seed than flesh, the tree was very popular with the ancient Maya, and today in villages like this is still much planted, maybe more from tradition than because people really cherish the scant eating.

Bitter Oranges are large, warty oranges mostly green when they're ripe. They're less bitter than acid. People make something like sweetened lemonade with them.

Spanish Plums, genus SPONDIUS, of the Cashew/ Poison-Ivy Family, we've run into before, back in Querétaro, so I have stories and nice pictures of them at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/spondias.htm.

You probably know about the other fruit trees in the picture, but possibly "pumpkin/squash" leaves you wondering. Orange, Halloween-type pumpkins aren't traditionally grown here, nor are yellow crookneck summer squash or zucchinis, but we do have many kinds of closely related pumpkin/squash/gourd fruits. Many traditional American fruit types in this group possess a hard rind like a gourd, but sweet, yellow or orange flesh, like a pumpkin. The one in the picture is still green and growing, about the size of the wandering chicken in the picture, so we'll see what it matures into.

That wandering chicken itself is an important part of the picture, for it picks caterpillars and bugs off plants and distributes nitrogen and other nutrients throughout the system in its randomly dispersed droppings. Peacocks, turkeys, and sheep round out the wandering, foraging and pooping population. Most nights a big, white, humpbacked Zebu bull is tied beneath the Guaya, and he leaves a lot of nutrients there himself. During the day he's tied out in the scrub.

Soil here is very thin to absent. Most of the surface beneath the herbage in the picture is naked limestone rock. Things are planted in the limestone's cracks and crevices. I suspect that during henequen-plantation days much of what soil there was eroded away. The soil situation out in the scrub isn't much better. Really it's amazing that things survive so well on such thin soil.

*****

STICKERS
Most of the shrubs and small trees out in the scrub bear spines. Typically the spines are so small that they go unnoticed until you graze a limb or take hold of a trunk, and then you get scratched or punctured. When that happens, chances are that the tip of the spine stays stuck in your flesh. Then you either wait for the wound to fester and maybe the sticker will pop out, or you dig with needle and tweezers, or massage the wound, trying to "work it out." On any given day in the scrub I'll get one or two new stickers. You just live with them here, the way glass cutters live with finger cuts and Band-Aids.

The other day when it'd been hot for so long that my philosophical framework began losing its effectiveness in defending me against the world's indignities, and I was sitting with several hurting, festering fingers, it occurred to me that the Creator had been rather nasty in making spines the way they are. How simple it would have been to fix spines so that their tips don't lodge in wounds. Let them protect the plants by gouging or tearing into an animal's flesh, but just keep those points from coming off and staying inside the wound the way they do...

When a breeze finally came along and I got my sense back, I recognized this discontent with the Creator was a relict attitude from my childhood back in rural Kentucky. I grew up believing that God and humankind had an agreement going -- that Nature existed for the use and pleasure of humans, and that if we humans did things the way our just, ever-attentive God wanted, He'd take care of us. So, as a child, I posed lots of questions such as, How do stickers in fingers fit into a universe made for humans by an ever watchful and just God we have a deal with?

Of course, if we want to question "justness" we can evoke instances more thought provoking than stickers in fingers. What was just about the New World's indigenous civilizations were annihilated by Europeans? During the history of Life on Earth, what was just about the five or so mass extinctions that caused entire species, genera and even families of plants and animals to go extinct?

I've come to the conclusion that the single most dangerous yet potentially manageable threat to Life on Earth is the religion-based human assumption that the Creator has a special deal with humankind. That belief is dangerous because it encourages reckless behavior. If a child knows that whatever thoughtless thing he or she does, the mother will swoop in and make things right, that child will get into endless meanness. Most of humanity religiously believes that there's something out there watching over us and taking care of us.

But, history and current events teach us that no agency will swoop in and save us if we screw up the Earth's ecosystem.

The most productive change we humans can make to save Life on Earth, then, is to upgrade our many, often mutually antagonistic religious beliefs. They should be replaced by the universal spirituality anyone spontaneously feels when his or her mind and heart are opened to the majesty, beauty and miraculous nature of the Universe, the Creation.

A spiritual person can "praise the Lord" as fervently as any religious person, and the same is true about living ethically and lovingly. However, a spiritual person uninfluenced by religion will never make the error of believing that the Creator will step in and save us if we destroy the very biosphere that sustains us.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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